The good news is that the New York Times Magazine just published a very long cover story on sex after the age of 70. The article itself is quite ground-breaking. I can’t remember if the world’s most important news source has ever before concerned itself with the orgasms (or lack thereof) and sex toys of people on Medicare, but here is a story that makes it seem that having good sex as long as you can breathe is a God-given right that somehow was overlooked by the writers of the Constitution. Indeed, an octogenarian with an oral-sex secret that drives his wife crazy (in a good way) uses a walker when he’s not lying down or performing said sexual maneuvers. Bravo!
Because bodies change, good sex in old age often needs reimagining and expanding.
I particularly appreciated what the writer called the “poignant paradox” of older sex. “As our worlds get smaller—work slows down or ends, physical abilities recede, traveling gets more challenging, friendship circles narrow as people die—we tend to have more time and inclination to savor the parts of our lives that are emotionally meaningful, which can include sex. But because bodies change, good sex in old age often needs reimagining, expanding, for example, to include more touching, kissing, erotic massage, oral sex, sex toys.”
It’s encouraging to have the subject of older sex treated with such respect and sensitivity. The Times’s willingness to dive into these waters surely has a lot to do with the fact that Baby Boomers, who have always set trends and national priorities, and maybe some editors are in this 70-plus age bracket. Still, those of us younger, even much younger, can’t help but feel optimistic about passion in our future.
As a woman from Minnesota wrote in the comments: “I will be passing [this article] on to many people, most of my circle being in mid-life who have lots to learn yet and are looking forward to decades of intimacy ahead of us.”
Ugggh! The Photos
The problem—one that almost completely negates the point of the story—is the photos. They make sex after a certain age seem worse than you could ever imagine. There is a lot of sweaty pink skin, truncated torsos, body parts that seem like they might belong to an alien or an amphibian.
The photos do not the advance the idea that sex among the gray-haired set is natural.
Someone thought these photos were evocative, edgy, or artsy enough to make them hugely prominent. At a time when printed publications have thinned out for lack of advertising and stories have gotten shorter and photos more judiciously used, the magazine has devoted 16 pages to the story—most of this prime real estate taken up by six full-page photos and two spreads, each almost covering two pages.
If I weren’t acutely interested in the subject, I would never have read it after glancing at the photos. I’m sure any young person who comes across the story is almost as creeped out as if they’d caught their parents having sex. This does not the advance the idea that sex among the gray-haired set is natural and appealing.
The offending photographer is Marilyn Minter, who is in her 70s herself and should know better. According to the bio published with the story, “Her work focuses on the idea of unconventional beauty.” The photos on her website demonstrate an ability to heighten the “hot” factor by shooting through what looks like a steamy shower door. That technique was obviously attempted here but without the vivid colors and carefree poses. Opportunity missed, Marilyn.
We’re not alone in our distaste for the photos. The comments are full of condemnation. “The individuals looked sweaty, greasy and slimy. Who looks like that?” Susan from Detroit wrote. A commenter from New England was put off not by the older bodies but “the cheap lingerie, gaudy nail polish and fake-looking pearls all cast in lighting that looks like the ‘red light district’ of the 1980s. Ick!”
The Real Story
Maybe the best part of the story is the comments, which convey the varied approaches to sex at an older age. Some people wrote in to say they were happy without sex and resented that the article made them feel they should want sex right up until the end. There were heartbreaking tales of loneliness. A 65-year-old woman from Upstate New York related that her sex life ended 10 years ago when her husband had prostrate cancer surgery. “I feel like I have lost so much. I often think about how intimacy could help relieve the constant anxiety that COVID, Trump and climate change cause me. Oh, to just have arms around me, and lips on me! I could forget about everything for an hour or more.”
Their deeper sexual connection is related to their awareness that time is running out.
Delightfully, the comments were full of stories of couples for whom sex has stayed intense or even gotten better with age. “One of the best things about retirement is being free in the afternoon…for the sort of nap the French refer to as “une sieste crapuleuse,” wrote Susan from Paris, who translated the saying, roughly, as a nap with benefits. “If either my husband or I announce we’re going upstairs for a nap after lunch it is a teasing invitation for the other to follow.”
Kathryn from New York City offers a wonderful anecdote about a fire that started in the kitchen of her parents’ home. “`The fire started in a wok on top of the stove,’ [my mother] said. `You forgot you were cooking in a wok?’ `Well, I put the oil in the wok and your father came in and wanted to have sex, so I went into the bedroom and forgot to turn the burner off.'” Kathryn adds that they were 72 and 82 at the time.
Possibly the most poignant part of the article was the way the author concluded the story about the walker-using husband with a talent for cunnilingus. “Much of [their deeper sexual connection] is related to their awareness that time is running out, which makes intimacy feel more sacred. Now, at the end of sex, one of them says a version of: `Thank you, God, for one more time.'”